The official mission of No Labels, an ill-defined advocacy group co-founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is to reduce the partisan vitriol in Washington that it holds has confounded the process of legislating and governing. However, some observers maintain that the group’s actual goal is to provide a launching pad for a 2012 Bloomberg presidential campaign—no matter how much the mayor protests that he has no plans to run.
The group held a politically star-studded launch in New York City on December 13—although a few of the featured stars have faded since the November elections. Among the speakers were Delaware Representative Mike Castle (defeated in the state’s Republican Senate primary by a Tea Party favorite), Florida Governor Charlie Crist (forced into an unsuccessful run for Senate as an independent) and Democratic Indiana Senator Evan Bayh (who declined to run for re-election, citing his frustration with Washington partisan gridlock).
Of course, if the movement picks up momentum, and candidates eventually seek to run under the No Labels label, the group’s raison d’être will have collapsed on itself—a paradox of Hawking-esque proportions.
The group aims not only to moderate the political debate from the middle but to promote centrism, cooperation and civility in Congress. It also seeks to raise the profile of politicians that embody its ideals—for instance, that of a particular big-city mayor. For Richard Bensel, a professor of American political development at Cornell University, No Labels is Bloomberg’s attempt to create a movement that will in the end compel him to run for president.
“He really does want to run, but he always wanted to be drafted,” says Bensel. “There is no one out there to do that, so he is having someone do that indirectly.”
Bloomberg indulged extended speculation that he would enter the 2008 presidential race, but ultimately remained on the sidelines. He repeatedly denied any plans to run, but a series of reports confirmed that he was exploring his options.
American history is littered with 3rd-party presidential candidates whose campaigns showed early promise, but ended in failure. Just two examples, at opposite ends of the 20th century: Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose Party run and Ross Perot’s in 1992 and 1996. Both of those candidates were compelled by genuine, bottom-up populist movements rather than manufactured organizations like No Labels, points out Bensel.
Bensel suggests that the closest historical parallel to a potential Bloomberg presidential run is the campaign of Illinois Representative John Anderson in 1980, a Republican who ran as an Independent. Anderson initially drew significant support from the more liberal Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party, which was uncomfortable with the party’s conservative nominee, Ronald Reagan. That initial exuberance waned as Republicans rallied around Reagan as their best hope of defeating President Carter, and Anderson garnered just 6.6 percent of the popular vote.
Bensel believes, however, that support for a Bloomberg presidential run could pick up if the GOP nominates a Tea Party candidate who alienates independents and moderate Republicans. Bloomberg would then be well-positioned to siphon off some disaffected Republican votes. This same scenario, however, would give President Obama an opening to occupy the center, potentially leaving no room for Bloomberg.
Even if Bloomberg can effectively appeal to centrists, his road to an Electoral College majority is unclear. What’s more, modern presidential runs require an organization that is fully engaged long before the primaries begin—and Bloomberg shows no sign of having set up such an operation.
And for the moment, the man himself continues to deny any interest in running for the nation’s highest office. On Sunday, Bloomberg appeared on Meet the Press and said he was “not looking at the possibility of running” for president.
If you are overcome by a sense of déjà vu, it is forgivable; Bloomberg said much the same thing in the same venue in 2007. But there is good reason to believe that the mayor of Gotham is simply playing the part of the reluctant candidate to make himself all the more appealing as a potential contender.
Political observers would be well advised to keep an eye on the third-term mayor on the off chance that the call from the frustrated middle grows so loud that he has no choice but to plunge into the race for president.
Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at email@example.com